504th Parachute Infantry Regiment

504th PIR Regimental Pocket Patch
American parachutists -- Devils in Baggy Pants -- are less than 100 meters from my outpost line. I can’t sleep at night; they pop up from nowhere and we never know when or how they will strike next. Seems like the black-hearted devils are everywhere.........

(Translated from the diary of a dead German Officer at Anzio - February 1944)

On 1 May 1942 The 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) was activated at Fort Benning, Georgia and was later attached to the newly designated 82nd Airborne Division under the command of General Omar N. Bradley.

After arriving in Casablanca, French Morocco on 10 May 1943, the 504th began the gruelling preparations for the drops into Sicily from their base in North Africa. Finally, On the night of 10 July, the 504th was ordered to jump on Farello Airstrip, which was held by the Americans. However, disaster soon struck. One anti-aircraft gunner opened up on the transports and soon other itchy trigger fingers jerked in response. Twenty-three of 144 USAAF transports were shot down by friendly fire and a total of 318 American troops were killed or wounded in the operation.

Meanwhile, a political uprising in Italy resulted in the removal of Mussolini. This event sparked Hitler's decision to send additional troops to the region to deter the possibility of the Italians'defection to Allied forces. To counter Hitler's move the 82nd Airborne's mission changed from making a para/glider assault at Salerno to attacking Rome itself. The 504th would jump and seize key airfields around Rome. Additional troops would then be flown into these airheads while the heavier tank destroyer units would make amphibious landings. However due to the Italians' unwillingness to fight the Germans the operation was called off on 8 September.


Salerno - The Oil Drum Drop
504ers ready to jump At 0330 on 9 September 1943 the amphibious landings at Salerno began. The Allied hold on the beachhead became tenuous when, on 12 September, the Germans launched a successful counterattack. The situation became so critical that Gen. Mark Clark ordered the 82nd to prepare to drop directly on the beachhead.
In order to guide the C-47 pilots to the shrinking dropzone, oil drums filled with gasoline soaked sand were ignited every 50 yards when signaled. On the night of 13 September, 1300 504'rs took off and parachuted on to a dropzone that was a mere 1200 yards long and 800 yards wide south of the Sele River near Salerno. The sight of the paratroopers floating down gave the defending troops a morale boost as well as badly needed reinforcements. The days that followed were, in the words of  General Mark Clark, Commander of the 5th Army, "responsible for saving the Salerno beachhead." As the 504th (minus 3rd Battalion) took the high ground at Altavilla, the enemy counterattacked and the Commander of 6th Corps, General Dawley, suggested the unit withdraw. Epitomizing the determined spirit of the Regiment, Colonel Tucker vehemently replied, "Retreat, Hell! -- Send me my other battalion!" The 3rd Battalion then rejoined the 504th, the enemy was repulsed, and the Salerno beachhead was saved. By 18 September the Germans withdrew, conceding the success of the landings.

"Leg Infantry"
To outflank the German defenses along the Gustav Line, an amphibious invasion at Anzio was planned. Assigned as part of the invasion force was the 504th Parachute Combat Team (PCT), consisting of the 504th PIR, the 376th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, and Company C, 307th Parachute Engineers. The 504th had been fighting as "leg infantry" during the advance towards Rome until pulled from combat on 4 January 1944 to prepare for the Anzio operation. The 504th PCT was assigned to seize the town of Borgo Piave on 24 January. Although successful they were soon driven out by German tanks and artillery. They then held a defensive position along the Mussolini Canal until relieved on 28 January. After withdrawal the third Battalion, 504th PIR was assigned to the 1st Armour Division, while the remainder of the PCT was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division. The 3/504th soon saw intensive combat fighting off a German counterattack. As a result of this action they became the first US parachute unit to receive a Presidential Unit Citation.

Rejoined by the decimated 3rd Battalion the 504th PCT was soon back in their defensive positions on the right flank where they carried out aggressive small unit infiltration patrols across German lines. This demoralized the Germans as was noted by a German officer who referred to them as "Devils in Baggy Pants", a name proudly carried by the 504th until this day.

In late March the 504th was ordered withdrawn to England to join the 82nd Airborne. They departed aboard the "Capetown Castle". Although Nazi broadcasters warned the unit by radio that German submarines would never let the ship past the Straits of Gibraltar, the only danger the ship encountered came when all the troops rushed to the same side of the vessel as it pulled into Liverpool on 22 April 1944. The 82nd Airborne Division band greeted them with "We’re All American and proud to be ...," and it was assumed that the 504th would rejoin the 82nd for the upcoming invasion at Normandy. As D-Day approached, however, it became apparent that the 504th would be held back. A lack of replacements prevented the Regiment from participating in the invasion, so only a few dozen 504th troopers were taken as pathfinders.



Operation Market Garden

 On 9 September 1944 Field-Marshal Montgomery proposed a plan, called Operation Market Garden, to secure a bridgegehead across the Rhine. The operation called for a combined armor and airborne assault to seize and hold key bridges and roads deep behind German lines in Holland. The airborne phase of the operation consisted of capturing five bridges ahead of the armored force. The 504th now back at full strength rejoined the 82nd, while the 507th went to the 17th Airborne Division.

Men of I Company of the 504th PIR in England on 17 September 1944 before jumping into Holland. They are (left to right) Kneeling: unidentified troopers;
Standing: 1/Sgt Odum, 2nd, 3rd & 4th troopers unidentified, Capt Delbert Kuehl, Capt Moffatt Burriss and 7th, 8th & 9th troopers unidentified.)
(Note: If anyone can identifiy the unknown troopers please contact me).

The 504th's mission was to capture two bridges across the Maas-Waal Canal. The operation began on 17 September. The 504th quickly secured one of the most important objectives, the nine-span bridge over the Maas River, by hitting both ends simultaneously. (^^ Below right: the scene from the movie "A Bridge Too Far" of the 3rd Battalion's assault across the Waal River.^^)

On 20 September the 3rd Battalion of the 504th commanded by Major Julian Cook was order by Gen Gavin to make an assault across the the Waal River and secure a crucial bridge. With artillery support the first wave of the 504th assaulted, in twenty-six assault boats, under intense fire, taking 200 casualties in the process. Finally on D+4 the 504th finally secured their hold on the bridge, fighting off another German counterattack just before noon. It was in this skirmish that Pvt. John Towle won the Medal of Honor.

The Regimental motto, "Strike Hold," had never before been more forcefully demonstrated on the battlefield. The 504th, tired yet determined, had gallantly kept its commitment to accomplish every mission without ever relinquishing any ground it had once occupied.

Its success, however, was short-lived because of the defeat of other Allied units at Arnhem. The gateway to Germany would not open in September 1944, and the 82nd was ordered back to France.



Battle of the Bulge - The Ardennes Offensive

Suddenly, on December 16, 1944, the Germans launched a surprise offensive through the Ardennes Forest which caught the Allies completely by surprise. Two days later the 82nd joined the fighting and blunted General Von Runstedt's northern penetration in the American lines.

On the morning of 19 December the 504th was getting into position north of Bastogne, while the 101st Airborne Division was assigned to Bastogne itself. The Germans quickly infiltrated and cut off the road between the two elements and the "Battle of the Bulge" offensive flowed around the two airborne units. The 82nd as a whole faced great difficulty in holding position along the northern edge of the German penetration. The 504th faced particularly heavy German attacks, winning their second Presidential Unit Citation in the process.

Driving deep into the heartland of Germany, the 504th finally took up positions along the West Bank of the Rhine River. Then on 6 April 1945 A Company  crossed the Rhine near the village of Hitsdorf as a diversionary tactic to mislead the Germans from the full scale crossing. The fierce fighting which ensued won A Company a Presidential Unit Citation.

The war offically ended in Europe on 5 May 1945 and the 82nd Airborne Division was called upon to serve as the occupation force in the American Sector of Berlin.  Here the 82nd Airborne Division earned the name, "America’s Guard of Honor," as a fitting end to hostilities in which the 504th had chased the German Army some 14,000 miles across the European Theater.

The 504th PIR distinguished themselves as being a force to be reckoned with. They succeeded where others failed. They fought the toughest battles. They became one of the most decorated parachute units of the War. All things considered it is safe to say that the legacy of the "Devils in Baggy Pants" will live on forever.